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A nonbinary person uses a phone to distract them selves from their pain even though their body is screaming

Coming Back into My Body: Or How Distraction Has Been Both Good and Bad in My Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Distraction is a good way to block out pain.” The first time I heard this advice, I was in college and attending the arthritis self-help class given by the Arthritis Foundation. We were learning about how to deal with the pain of arthritis and, along with distraction, we also heard we could talk about it, go to physical therapy, use heat and/or cold, and do range of motion exercises. This being thirty years ago, the understanding of chronic pain was a small percentage of the knowledge that we have now – thankfully, today the list would be longer and more effective.

Distraction from rheumatoid arthritis pain

“Count to fifty if it hurts when you are walking upstairs. Sing a song when you are cutting vegetables for dinner so you won’t notice the pain.” I had to smile when I heard this advice because I had mastered this skill years before.

Using distraction as a kid

As a kid with JRA, I had a fertile imagination and would use it constantly as I was struggling to keep up in my daily activities. I had an imaginary friend that would walk home from school with me when my friends were running ahead. When my hand hurt from writing, I would concentrate harder on what I was doing so I wouldn’t feel the pain.

I got so good at it that I started thinking of different parts of my body as separate entities; I preferred my left hand to my right because it was stronger, and my right foot to my left because my toes were straight on my right foot and crooked on the left. Then I got an ulcer and told my stomach it was my red-headed stepchild. Yes, I had a creative imagination…

Distraction seemed like a good idea

Over the years, I kept this up, albeit a bit less creatively, and would push through pain every day by staying in my head instead of my body. As far as I knew, that was a good idea – it definitely helped me to be more productive during the day. It also helped me to fit in with my peers who weren’t bothered by pain. The harder I pushed myself, the prouder of myself I became.

Despite distraction, my RA symptoms worsened

I was also pushing other things away. I was pushing away the fact that, about once every few weeks, I would collapse from extreme exhaustion and spend a few days in a haze of fatigue. I was pushing away the fact that my insomnia was getting worse, and that my joints were becoming more deformed. These inconvenient facts didn’t stop me from my favorite way of “handling” the pain, and as you can probably imagine, in my early thirties, my body finally rebelled and I went into the longest and worst flare-up I’ve ever experienced.

Deciding to pay attention to my body

There was no distracting myself from the level of pain I found myself in. I had to find my way back to my body. I had to stop telling it what it had to do and learn to listen to it when it was telling me what it needed instead. Reluctantly, I started to rest before I collapsed and stopped before my joints were screaming at me. I started practicing guided imagery, and sleep hygiene. I paced myself more.

I realized that my most important relationship is the one I have with my body, my self. Even today, I have to admit I’d prefer to distract myself from it all because, by listening, I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m more physically capable than I actually am. Listening to my body’s needs has to be the guiding force of my life if I’m going to have a fair chance at continuing to function for a long time. But that means in my day-to-day life, sometimes I have to let myself function less well, whether I like it or not.

Being proud of hard my body works

There is more than one silver lining to this life change, however. I get sick less and for less time, and I sleep better most nights. Instead of being proud of my body for tangible accomplishments that I can see, coming back into my body has allowed me to see just how hard it works for me every day, and that is something I can be both grateful for and proud of.

 

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • yolirankin
    1 day ago

    Oh that’s funny! Your “red-headed step child” lol!! I may come up with something like that. Haha!

  • Rhemurphy
    1 week ago

    This was a great article. It aptLy expressed everything that I also feel. Thank you for helping me remember that I’m not alone!

  • kat-elton author
    1 week ago

    We are all in this together which for me is very comforting! Thanks for chiming in rheMurphy!

  • Mary Sophia Hawks moderator
    1 week ago

    Brava Kat-Elton!! I was forced into listening to my body much the same way you were. I have found new things to do so that my body can rest. Netflix anyone? I read more, which is distracting but not punishing. I shop less, which while not more fun is less punishing. It requires more thought. I now walk 250 steps each hour, as I can no longer walk more than 10 minutes at a time.
    Thanks for expressing this!
    Mary Sophia

  • kat-elton author
    1 week ago

    Mary Sophia, back at you; I think people with RA are some of the most adaptable people on the planet and you just proved my point! Keep on finding new ways of making the most out of life, and I will too!

  • TerryMcA
    1 week ago

    Like you, I find myself keeping busy. Because NOT being busy hurts. Whether reading on the internet while watching tv, playing games on the computer while watching tv, cooking while watching tv…. I always need that distraction. Doctors are so afraid to prescribe anything for pain meds now, saying take tylenol and ibuprophen all day… well, I’m allergic to both. I need that distraction, else I will go insane!

  • kat-elton author
    1 week ago

    Hi TerryMcA, there is a good reason why so many people use distraction, and sanity is the best reason of all! I hope you can find some more pain relief, I agree it’s getting really hard with all of the new focus on pain meds. Glad distraction is at least helping.

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    2 weeks ago

    @kat-elton I always fill my time with something because I hate just sitting around doing nothing. Whether it’s video games, or as of late, videos, I always have something on the burner. I can’t but help it because you’re right – idle hands are pain and discomfort’s best friend. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • kat-elton author
    1 week ago

    Rick, I’m in!

  • kat-elton author
    1 week ago

    Hi TerryMcA, there is a good reason why so many people use distraction, and sanity is the best reason of all! I hope you can find some more pain relief, I agree it’s getting really hard with all of the new focus on pain meds. Glad distraction is at least helping.

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    2 weeks ago

    I am ready to have distraction. This winter has been tough and I am ready to have a few distractions. Maybe we can distract ourselves to feeling great this week.

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